Between The Sheets: New Season, New Champions?

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The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing colors and the nights are getting colder.  It must be that time of year again….Curling Season!!  It has been a long few months since we crowned our world champions and grand slam winners.  The offseason was not a quiet one though with a variety of player jumps and new team formations. 

The 2015/16 season begins the pivotal year for Olympic qualifying.  Fans will also see changes to the Grand Slam of Curling format.  Rock Heads and Stoners (not THAT kind of stoner…come on now) are in for quite a season.

Before we blindly throw rocks down the ice with predictions for what lies ahead, let’s take a Colleen Jones-style long deep breath and recount what happened last year.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.11.32 AM1)    Red Pants Reign Supreme! – Team Mike McEwen was the class of the curling world last year.  The played 11 events on tour and won 8 of them.  That equates to a 0.727 winning percentage.  Of the 3 events they did not win, 2 of them saw runner-up finishes.  Yes, once again heartbreak in the Manitoba final but this team curled lights out all year.  I am not sure the powerhouse season of 2014/15 can be replicated…and not just by McEwen but by anyone, ever.  It was amazing to witness as a fan.  I expect the results to dip, only by comparison.  Can they stay on top of their form though?  For sure this will be the team to beat again this season.  More importantly, can they finally get their mitts on the buffalo jacket?  This season….I think it happens! 

 2)    Olympic Hangovers? – After winning Olympic gold in 2014, Team Brad Jacobs and Team Jennifer Jones were back playing a full tour schedule last year.  The year after the Olympics is always known to be hard on players, especially after winning.  Questions surrounded both teams on how they would play, would they be fatigued from the previous year and could they regain focus.  I would say both fought off the hangover like true champions.  Team Jones would go on to win the Scotties and represent Canada at the World Championships (winning a silver medal) and Team Jacobs would make it to the Brier final, coming up just short to defending champions Team Canada.  Whatever hangover cure these teams have, bottle it and sell it now!

3)    New Teams, New Surprises – After the Olympics, players already begin thinking of the next Olympic cycle.  Last year saw heavy movement around the country with the formation of new teams all over the place.  Some were quite successful (Team Reid Carruthers, Team Adam Casey, Team Mark Kean).  Of course, 2 of those teams already saw line up changes again heading into this season.  The Olympics have created a new way of thinking for curlers and players are positioning themselves to play with the best.  Last year was the freshmen frenzy of new teams, will this continue?  Could these new teams suffer a sophomore slump?  If you say it can’t be done, look no further than Canadian tennis star Genie Bouchard!  Even the best falter when expectations weigh too heavily on their shoulders.  I guarantee at least 2, if not 3 to 5, of the newly formed teams from a year ago hit a bump in the road this season.  But more on this topic below.

4)    EU is A-OK! – While Canada continues to produce some of the best teams in the world on an annual basis, the results have not come at the World Championships.  2014/15 was no exception.  Team Jones and Team Canada (Simmons) both fell short once again.  Canada has not won a men’s world championship since 2012 (Glen Howard) in Basel, Switzerland.  The drought has been even longer for the women.  The last Canadian world championship win was back in 2008 (Jennifer Jones) in Vernon, Canada.  Sure Canadian teams seem to dominate the world rankings and finish on top of the Order of Merit, but where is the world championship title to accompany?  Yes, winning the Olympic Gold is a bigger feather in the cap of Curling Canada but we seem unable to snap the European stranglehold on the world title.  Sweden (Edin) and Norway (Ulsrud) seem to flip the switch to another level at the world championships.  On the women side, Switzerland appears to be the real dominant nation with 3 world championship victories in 4 years.  Even more amazing, all 3 world titles were from different skips and different teams.  Hopp Schwiiz indeed!

5)    We Are The Champions J – Before diving into this upcoming season, let us give one long steady clap to the following teams for their success last year:

  • Canadian Mixed Curling – Saskatchewan (Skip: Max Kirkpatrick)
  • Continental Cup of Curling – Team North America
  • Canadian Junior Curling – Manitoba (Skip: Braden Calvert) & Alberta (Skip: Kelsey Roque)
  • World Wheelchair Curling – Russia (Skip: Andrey Smirnov)
  • Scotties Tournament of Hearts – Manitoba (Skip: Jennifer Jones)
  • Tim Hortons Brier – Canada (Skip: Pat Simmons)
  • World Junior Curling – Canada (Skip: Calvert)& Canada (Skip: Roque)
  • World Women’s Curling – Switzerland (Skip: Alina Paetz)
  • World Men’s Curling – Sweden (Skip: Nik Edin)
  • World Mixed Doubles Curling – Hungary

Now the fun part, predictions for the upcoming season.  Let’s be clear here though curling fans, I am in no way directly connected to the sport or the athletes.  I am a fan….just like you.  These predictions are a simple assessment of what I think COULD happen over the next few months.  I could be right on the money here….or way out in left field.  Don’t bet the farm on these…but don’t underestimate them either.  Ok, let’s chuck some stones and see what happens in an 8-end season!

1)     The Best Stay Ahead of the Pack – When you look at the Order of Merit men’s world rankings from last year (McEwen, Jacobs, Gushue, Edin, Laycock) it is tough to envision these top teams not staying here.  These teams have no line up changes (including Gushue for once) and played the best curling throughout last year.  Will they finish in the same order?  Debatable as I can see Jacobs and Gushue really push McEwen this year for the top spot.  Laycock will be challenged to remain in the Top 5 from teams like Simmons, Ulsrud and Koe.  My prediction for Top 5 at the end of the season is:  McEwen, Gushue, Edin, Jacobs, Laycock.  I think Gushue will have the best season on tour but the points lead Mikey and the boys have on him (192.1 to be exact) will be hard to make up in 1 season.

2)    Women’s Battle Royal – On the women’s side, I expect more of a shake up.  Jones, Muirhead, Sweeting, Homan and Paetz finished in the Top 5.  Entering the year, Jones and Muirhead seem to have a firm grip at the top.  I expect to see a strong challenge from many international teams again this year, namely Sidorova, Feltscher, Tirinzoni, Ogasawara and Kim.  The Canadian teams of Sweeting and Homan should challenge for the top as well.  My Top 5 at the end of the season looks like this: Muirhead, Jones, Homan, Sidorova, Paetz.   

3)    Curling Roulette Continues – The massive shifts in players and teams we saw last off-season is not over folks!  I expect to see a similar approach at the end of this season.  Ok it might not be as big of a jump as last season but the movement is not over.  Even this past off-season we saw new teams created (ie: Team John Epping, Team Chelsea Carey, Team Mark Kean among others).    For a full list of changes, click HERE.  Are teams who currently sit on the cusp of making a move towards Olympic qualifying going to ride it out if this year is not as successful?  Will teams who struggle decide to go separate ways in hopes of using the next two years as a final push for remaining qualifying spots?  This is exactly what I think will happen.  Not all teams are going to have the breakthrough season they hope.  It is just how sports work.  Not everyone can win.  Not everyone can find success every season.  For some players, this cycle may be their last chance at an Olympic berth.  If some of the top teams do not find themselves already with Olympic qualification or pre-qualification spots secured, expect to see more off-season moves. 

4)    Welcome Mixed Doubles – Mixed doubles has been added to the 2018 Winter Olympics, thus allowing for even more Olympic craziness amongst athletes.  This is great for the sport and a perfect opportunity to grow the sport in other countries, just look at Hungary!  Many of the top players in Canada have already been actively playing mixed doubles for a few years (ie: Charley Thomas, Mark Kean).  Expect to see many more join the fun…and double their spot at Olympic glory.  We could see some interesting pairings as well.  Imagine the possibilities of seeing Mark and Mallory Kean battle Mike and Dawn McEwen for an Olympic spot.  What about players like Val Sweeting, Rachel Homan, John Morris and Ryan Fry?  These players could all be a threat to add more Olympic gold to Canada’s curling history.  This year we will start seeing doubles teams formed and a push towards Olympic opportunity.  Get excited for this!

5)    New Grand Slam of Curling Format – The Grand Slam of Curling took a huge leap last year in the addition of the Elite 10 and having each event be slightly different in format and marketing colors to truly brand each event.  This year, you will see even more change with the addition of the GSOC Tour Challenge.  The Tour Challenge will see the top 30 men’s and women’s teams compete in a two tiers.  The top 15 teams based on order of merit ranking compete in Tier 1 while the next 10 teams compete in Tier 2.  The remaining 5 teams for Tier 2 will come from within province or region of the event.  It should be worth noting Tier 2 teams do not earn Grand Slam Cup points; however, the winners will receive guaranteed berths in the next Grand Slam event.  This new format really heightens the sport and raises it to another level. 

More teams competing on the grand slam stage will not only help grow the sport overall but also help those teams on the cusp of moving up the rankings a chance to play more while garnering more exposure toward fans and, ultimately, sponsors.  Throughout the season we will see many references to European football, having the Premier League and the Football League Championship.  This format seems to work across many sports actually. 

Tennis has the main ATP/WTA tour but also the Challenger Tour for up and coming players, new players and players who want to try and add more points to their ranking.  This new format will culminate in a winner take all event called the Champions Cup!  This new Grand Slam event will bring together all winners from the #GSOC season as well as select event winners (including the Scotties, Brier, World Championship, US Nationals, Asia/Pacific Championships etc). 

Perhaps even more worth noting, the World Junior champion will also receive an invite.  A great opportunity for the best junior teams to compete with the top teams around the world.  The experience factor alone for sharing ice with the best is amazing and credit to #GSOC for making this inclusion.  For a more detailed breakdown of the Champions Cup qualifying, please visit HERE.  Will there be issues with the new format?  Of course, change is never easy.  Are we on the right path towards a system of inclusion for ALL players within the sport while taking curling to another competitive level?  100%!!

6)    Dark Horse Teams – Ok we all know the top teams in the world but sometimes we see surprise teams rise to the top, challenge the best and come out victorious.  Last season I would say the Dark Horse Teams of the Year were Team Brendan Bottcher and Team Alina Paetz.  Bottcher took home 2 titles last year (HDF Insurance Shoot-Out, German Masters) and, more importantly, picked up 3 third place finishes at Grand Slam events (The National, Canadian Open and Players’ Championship).  Considering the prior year they missed qualifying in 6 of their 9 events played, last year was the breakout year for this team.  Paetz took home 2 titles on tour (Red Deer Curling Classic and International Bernese Ladies Cup), qualified for both Grand Slam events and..oh yeah just happened to win a World Championship.  Both of these teams really came out of nowhere in a way and shocked many of the best teams on tour.  Nobody should underestimate them this year!  So who will follow in these teams footsteps this year?  This is a bit difficult to predict given the new Grand Slam format.  I think we will see some up and coming teams currently sitting in the Top 15 really challenge for Grand Slam Cup points.  We will also see a few teams from the current Tier 2 position step up their game and move up the world rankings this year.  Given the new format, I break my dark horse into 2 sections: Tier 1 and Tier 2.  If looking at Tier 1 teams, the revised line up of Team Casey and Team Michel on the men’s side could surprise.  For the women’s teams, Chelsea Carey moves to yet another new team but one chalk full of experience and power, something she didn’t have behind her last season.  For Tier 2, the top men’s results should come from Team Jim Cotter and the new teams skipped by Shawn Adams, Tom Brewster and Mark Kean.  For Tier 2 women, teams skipped by Chantelle Eberle, Cissi Ostlund and Nina Roth should see a steady climb up the rankings.

7)     Champions! – Want to place some bets on champions this season?  Sure why not?  #TwineTime predicts the following:

  • Scotties – Ontario (Skip: Rachel Homan)
  • Brier – Newfoundland & Labrador (Skip: Brad Gushue)
  • World Women’s – Scotland (Skip: Eve Muirhead)
  • World Men’s – Canada (Skip: Gushue)
  • Order of Merit – Team Mike McEwen & Team Eve Muirhead
  • Dark horse Team of the Year – Team Adam Casey& Team Chelsea Carey
  • Most Improved Team of the Year (Tier 2 ranking) – Team Tom Brewster & Team Cissi Ostlund

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8)    Fantasy Time – Ok, every sport has fantasy play options now.  Why not curling?  Seriously, what is the hold up here people?  I give props to CurlingZone for doing a fantasy curling Pick The Winner style game on their site.  At least this is something.  But is this enough?  I don’t think so.  Think of the opportunities here to grow the sport.  Why not something very simple like the Fantasy Football CFL Edition game TSN runs every year.  Each week, fantasy fans sign in and pick their top fantasy team for the week, the players you think will outperform the rest.  You start the week with a budget ($100K for example) and you decide how best to form your fantasy team. 

For curling, perhaps you pick 2 skips, 2 thirds, 1 second, 1 lead and 1 overall team.  Each curler and each team would be given a different “cost” depending on their player profile (including history, season results etc).  Maybe you even go one step further and elevate Fantasy Curling to a Fantas-EH league style.  Fantasy players would join fantasy leagues and compete throughout the season against one another on a P2P basis. 

Am I the only one who thinks this would add a new element to watching the Season of Champions every year?  Sure not all players compete every week but CFL and NFL teams have bye weeks as well.  If the team is not playing, you just don’t pick them.  There are enough events throughout the season and enough teams competing to have a consistent league.  Or, if you want, maybe you only do it for #GSOC events?  Perhaps a #GSOC Fantasy League.  The grand slam season has already seen change to benefit the players, let’s see some change to add a new element of the sport for the fans.  

Imagine attending a #GSOC event, cheering on your fantasy team.  After the event, you go to the beer gardens and celebrate your fantasy week win with your winning players.  I think even the athletes would rally behind this idea.  Come on Sportsnet, TSN, Rogers…whomever….someone out there must want to sponsor this idea and get it going.  #TwineTime already is willing to be the guinea pig on a pilot fantasy league if needed.  Let’s make this happen for 2016/17.  What do you think curling fans? 

Ok sweepers, callers and armchair skips, there you have it.  Stay #BetweenTheSheets with #TwineTime throughout the season as I offer previews on the big events on the World Curling Tour and maybe even a few surprises along the way.  As always, join me in a conversation on here or on twitter.  The wait is over….we are ready to see some runbacks, crotch doubles, through the port draws and championship moments.   

James Runge

Spark Sports Curling Analyst